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4.0 out of 5 stars Global trade and the deadly power of the microbial world, 21 July 2013
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This review is from: Contagion: How Commerce Has Spread Disease (Hardcover)
By focusing on the complex interactions in recent centuries between the trading of goods and epidemic disease the author charts the tortuous history of Public Health policies to curb the spread of pestilent disease.Quarantine was first introduced in Europe by the Republic of Ragusa in 1397, in order to detain incoming suspected ships up to forty days and was soon to be followed by other maritime powers .The spread of epidemics started to be blamed by the public as well as governments and the medical elite on the traders bringing merchandise from pestilent overseas sources.Powerful commercial interests however wielded political pressure on the Authorities to lift or mitigate the impact of quarantines because of the losses incurred. Imperial and commercial rivalries led to differences in approach regarding the length of quarantine and the degree of liberalisation of restrictive sanitary precautions.Sanitary embargoes were often used as instruments of trade war.Powerful nations like the US in the Western hemisphere took coercive arbitrary steps to impose sanitary measures in South American and Caribbean countries.Similar attitudes prevailed amongst the European imperial powers in the Middle East,India and China that often caused considerable unrest and resentment.

Growing opposition to stringent quarantine practices in Europe were not only voiced by the merchants but also by humanitarian reformers and medical practitioners as they were considered outmoded and even barbaric defences against disease.Medical opinion in the pre microbial scientific era was divided and disputes raged between the different proponents and opponents of the contagious nature of diseases and their mode of transmission.Natural and historical explanations whether seasonal, environmental( noxious miasma) and even astrological were invoked that led to haphazard non scientific sanitary practices.I found that particular aspect of the book fascinating giving an interesting insight into the shifting medical notions of infective disease and its mode of spread.

The text is quite dense at times with a plethora of details which can be tiresome for the lay reader.Nevertheless it represents a remarkable wide ranging and original work which brings the story to our own times describing the regular upsurges of global anxiety about looming virulent pandemics that remind us of our vulnerability in the scientific high-tech world we inhabit and the limits of a purely technical solution to the sanitary regulation of trade and disease control.
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